ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – To know where the Steelers stand as heavy favorites heading into Sunday, one need only walk in their shoes.
Denver’s defensive coordinator and star cornerback have done just that.
Dennis Allen and Champ Bailey experienced playoff games as prohibitive favorites in recent years — Allen with the Saints last January against the homely, 7-9 Seattle Seahawks and Bailey with the Broncos in the 2005 AFC Championship Game, when the Broncos, having expected to travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts, instead got a home title shot when Steelers upset the Colts at the RCA Dome.
What ensued is a that game that Broncos supporters remember well, but would rather forget. Denver was 13-3, the Steelers 11-5 a and visions of a Super Bowl return danced in fans’ heads. Pittsburgh was the No. 6 seed; no sixth seed had ever made the Super Bowl.
By halftime, when the Broncos trailed 24-3, it was apparent that statistic would change.
“Yeah, same thing, different team, right? Just kind of flipped it a little bit,” Bailey said Thursday. “And what did they do? They came here and beat our butts, so who’s to say what’s going to happen Sunday?”
Bailey and linebacker D.J. Williams are the only Broncos players remaining on the roster from that game; linebacker Keith Burns is still around as a special teams assistant and strength coaches Rick Tuten and Greg Saporta remain, but aside from them, the entire complement of players and coaches has turned over, leaving just those five — which is the same number of players or coaches from the Broncos’ 2005 playoff team who will help the Houston Texans make their postseason debut Saturday.
Bailey, having grown in his years to become one of the most earnest and frank-talking Broncos, has seen nearly an entire organization change while he remains at his corner locker-room stall, at the nexus of the team’s cornerbacks, safeties and wide receivers. He’s the Broncos’ oracle now, and the locker room’s strongest connection with its recent past.
“I remember them kicking our butts. It was tough to watch afterwards because we knew we were a good team,” Bailey said. “We didn’t execute that day.”
It was a turning point for both franchises. Unbeknownst to anyone, the Broncos were already a club in decline. Their 2005 run had been fueled by career seasons from some young or mid-career players like Ashley Lelie, Nick Ferguson and Tatum Bell, last great seasons from older ones like Rod Smith, John Lynch and Mike Anderson, unexpectedly stellar years from players like Courtney Brown and Michael Myers and a nearly-error-free season from Jake Plummer. Severe injuries over the next two years to expected long-term linchpins like Al Wilson, Matt Lepsis and Ebenezer Ekuban only exacerbated the problem. The revolving door began to spin wildly, and the Broncos found themselves at rock bottom 12 months ago.
Meanwhile, the Steelers soared to heights they hadn’t reached since the 1970′s, going to three of the next six Super Bowls and winning two. Their worst season since then was 8-8 in 2006; they haven’t had a losing season since.
In the meantime, the Broncos’ best finish since that day was 9-7 in 2006; they haven’t had a winning season in the five years that followed, settling into a steady decline that didn’t break until John Elway and John Fox arrived and began cleansing the detritus of a five-season decline.
“You can look at the direction we both headed after that. They went up, we went down,” Bailey said. “It’s funny how it played out. But that was then, this is now. We have a chance to turn things around here and that’s what we expect to do this weekend.”
One of the first moves of the 12-month turnaround was to sign Bailey to a four-year contract. Fox sold Bailey on his rebuilding plan, and the cornerback who was one of the last two connections to the Broncos’ most recent glory became the first building block of the restoration process.
“I think he’s done great because I don’t know many coaches that would change certain things to suit the personnel … especially on the fly” Bailey said.
“Most coaches are arrogant enough to stick to their plan and think it’s going to work, and not try to make adjustments. And he’s not like that.”
It’ll likely take a few more adjustments for Fox to extend the Broncos’ season for another week, but what’s to say he and the Broncos can’t? He’s 2-0 in wild-card games, and being four games worse than your wild-card foe isn’t reason to surrender.
That’s something Allen knows all too well, because last year, he was on the Saints’ sideline as their defensive backs coach. In what became his final game with the Saints, Allen watched Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck four touchdown passes and tailback and noted Skittles connoisseur Marshawn Lynch run for another to trample New Orleans’ sweet dreams of consecutive championships in a 41-36 defeat.
“I told the guys, coach Fox even brought it up,” Allen said. “We were the big bad Saints and supposed to go in there and win the game and it was going to be easy for us.
“Everybody in the media was saying (the Seahawks) had no chance. Tony Dungy said they shouldn’t even show up. That’s not the way it works in the National Football League.”
The Seahawks faced longer odds than the Broncos do this week; they were an 11-point underdog and had the only losing record for any non-strike-year playoff participant in league history. Denver is an eight-point underdog and is the second 8-8 AFC West champion in the last four years.
That team was the 2008 San Diego Chargers, which faced the Colts, whose 12-4 record then is the same the Steelers have now. San Diego won in overtime.
Such examples aren’t the norm, but they’re enough to offer the Broncos reason to believe. So too is the fact that teams which enter the playoffs on a losing streak of at least three games are 4-0 when their playoff opener is at home.
“People are kind of whispering behind our back and telling us we suck,” Bailey said. “I’d rather live like that than any other way.”